When the pandemic hit and school buildings shut down, the idea of grading online learning seemed a little ridiculous.
We had bigger fish to fry. And it wasn’t fair to our students. “How can we hold them accountable when we can’t support them in the way we used to?”
But now, as many schools are preparing for continued online learning, the goal has shifted. We can’t pretend that we are just filling time until things go back to normal. We may have a prolonged period of online learning.
While school buildings our closed, we owe it to our students to help them feel a sense of normalcy. And we need to produce some evidence that learning is still happening in our classes.
While some schools suspended grading for the spring, almost every school will start grading again this fall. So how can we be sure that our students won’t cheat? Is it fair to assess those with limited access to technology? What is a reasonable workload?
And what about our own workloads? Many of us are teaching from home, while caring for our own children. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and grading can take up a significant amount of our prep time.
The Problems with Grading Online Learning
There has always been some level of cheating. And some students have always gotten significant help at home. For others, home life presents more challenges than supports. And most of us already spend too much time on grading, leaving us little time to plan the lessons we dream of.
The shift to online learning has simply turned up the volume on these problems.
We could keep students from cheating, at least during a test. And we knew which students had limited support at home, so we gave them extra support in school. As for our own time, it just seemed like grading in-school learning was quicker than grading online learning.
Can Online Learning Improve Grading?
As problematic as these challenges are, they are not the root of the problem with grading. They are just the symptoms.
The underlying problem with grading is one of purpose. Why do we grade our students in the first place? Is it to motivate them? To help parents understand their progress? Or is it so admissions officers can more easily rate and sort our students?
Each of these purposes and audiences warrants a different approach. But we’ve never really decided which is most important. So instead, we focus on what’s easiest to measure. And we use grading systems that shoot for the middle, serving no purpose particularly well.
One way we can improve grading is to consider the Three Bridges of Learning. Three Bridges assumes the purpose of education is to take students from point A (not knowing) to point B (knowing).
There are three “bridges,” or ways that we can support learning. Bridge one is content coverage, the traditional model of instruction. This model relies on textbooks, lectures, and unit tests. And while schools have sought to make learning more differentiated, exploratory and authentic, our grades are still based on the traditional model.
In order to make grades more meaningful, we need to factor in the other two bridges: personalized and inquiry-based learning. And while this shift is important in a live classroom, it’s absolutely essential for grading online learning.
Grading Bridge 1: Content Coverage
Content coverage is the coin of the realm in modern schools. It is the model of learning based on delivering information to students and finding out what they’ve remembered. It’s the philosophy behind textbooks, standardized tests, and “I do, we do, you do.”
The model of curriculum coverage goes something like this: Each course consists of certain information, or ‘content.’ The teacher’s job is to ‘cover’ the content by presenting it to students.
Later, we measure student success by the percentage of questions they get right on a unit test or state test.
This model makes it easy to compare students and provide reports to outside institutions. But it falls short in most other ways. The assessments are not very useful for motivating students or helping them understand their progress.
Grading Bridge 2: Personalized Learning
The second bridge, personalized learning, is similar in terms of what students learn. But it takes a very different approach to how they learn, as well as how we measure learning.
The personalized learning model involves matching instruction to student need. So just because a student is in a 7th grade class, it doesn’t mean she needs to read the same books or solve the same equations as her classmates. We use technology to understand student strengths and needs, and to assign work that is right for them.
Since each student is learning different material, we don’t expect uniform outcomes. For a PL initiative to be successful, students need to take ownership of their learning by setting and working towards their own goals.
The metrics of success in this model include effort and growth. We can measure and grade the time spent using a PL platform. Eventually, we can measure their growth in terms of ‘years of progress.’ If a student makes more than one year of academic progress in a school year, it’s considered a successful year, warranting a strong grade.
Grading Bridge 3: Inquiry-Based Learning
With the first two bridges, though the pace and path are different, we are still focused on remembering information. But with
inquiry-based learning, we are focused on students’ ability to solve problems, create projects, and collaborate with peers.
Students will certainly acquire content along the way, but a good task allows each student to learn different things from the same activity. So rather than measuring achievement with ‘objective’ assessments, like tests, we measure performance in terms of process, product, and presentation.
When students collaborate and communicate well, create good plans, and maintain focus, they earn points for ‘process.’ When they turn in a creative solution to a challenging problem, or create an impressive artifact, they earn points for their ‘product.’ And when they present their artifacts or describe their learning to teachers and peers, they earn points for ‘presentation.’
It’s true that these measures aren’t as easy to measure as multiple-choice questions. It’s helpful to use a rubric to make grading easier and let students know what is expected.
Tips for Grading Online Learning
In live schools, most of our grades come from ‘bridge 1’ learning goals. But these are the most difficult to measure in an online setting. To simply and effectively grade online learning, you’ll want to include measures of personalized learning and inquiry.
The adjustment to online learning has the potential to help all of us improve our approach to grading. My hope is that we can bring some of what we learn back to the classroom.
Here are some practical tips for incorporating a three-bridges mindset into your grading system. Each one can help make your online grading simpler, friendlier, and more effective.
Tip 1: Grade Weekly, Not Daily
One of the best favors you can do yourself as a teacher is to think weekly, rather than daily.
It’s not always easy! A content coverage approach requires that we keep all of our students on the same page. We don’t have room for one student to fall a few days behind, while another moves a few days ahead.
This approach is very limiting, and incredibly inefficient. In an online setting, it becomes nearly impossible for students to keep up with daily assignments. And it’s just as challenging for teachers to keep track of every student on a daily basis.
As a result, we’re forced assign work that is fast to complete and easy to grade. But this type of work is also less meaningful.
Giving weekly assignments lets students work around their own schedules. The independence gives them more ownership of their learning. It also saves us a lot of time grading assignments and chasing down missing work.
If you use a personalized learning platform like IXL or Khan Academy, simply assign students a number of minutes per week. I recommend 30-60. Divide the number of minutes completed by the number assigned to find their weekly grade.
You can also assign a group activity, like a story analysis or a number proof. These are fun and engaging tasks that also demand deep thinking and collaboration. Students can work on their own schedules over the course of a week, and present to the group the following week. Use a rubric to grade students on their process, product, and presentation.
Tip 2: Grade Liberally
As mentioned above, it’s not always clear why we are grading our students. Is it for them? Their parents? Our administration? Is it for us?
Of course, it’s a little bit of each. But shouldn’t the students come first? And shouldn’t we try to build our students up by giving the highest grades we can?
I know, I know. Sometimes it can be really difficult. A student blows off an assignment. Or disrespects us in class or on Zoom. It can feel like grades are the only tool we have to assert our authority. But that power can also be dangerous.
When I first started teaching, I had a reputation as a tough grader. I thought that grading conservatively would make my students try harder, and they’d rise to the challenge.
But over time, I realized that grading was consuming too much of my time and energy. And it was straining my relationship with students and their parents.
Every year I spent in the classroom, I became a more lenient grader. And guess what? Each year, my students worked harder and learned more than the year before. I found that the motivating power of strict grading to be an illusion. I later found this observation to be confirmed by research.
Do everything you can to make sure your students’ grades are high. When students see you as their, they’ll spend less energy trying to work the system, and more living up to the potential you see in them.
Tip 3: Grade Intentionally
This one’s a bit controversial, but I think we get too hung up on the accuracy of our grades.
On one level, it makes sense. We want grades to be fair. We feel that the students who are best in our subject get the best grades.
Accuracy is most important when reporting to an outside audience. But for motivating our students, accuracy can be counter-productive. Students who do well with little effort get rewarded for their complacency. And students who struggle despite working hard get frustrated and give up.
Grades can be a powerful tool, if we use them as such. I think of grades like a down payment. Most of us don’t have enough cash handy to buy a house. But the bank still lets us live there, believing that over time, I’ll pay the balance.
Same goes for our struggling learners. Give them a grade that reflects their potential. Let them know that you expect them to live up to the grade you gave them.
And make sure your easygoing high-performers have room to grow. They may be used to seeing their grade as a comparison to their peers. But to be motivating, they’ll need to start seeing grades as a comparison with their ‘best self.’
Tip #4: Grade Productivity, Not Memory
The unit test. The day of reckoning. After focusing on a topic for weeks or months, test day is the time for students to ‘show what they know.’
As educators, we tend to see the unit test as the most objective and reliable measure of learning. We watch our students take it, so we can be sure they didn’t receive help. And there’s an answer key, so we can be sure the right answers are right and the wrong answers are wrong.
But just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it’s useful, or relevant to students’ future success.
I can’t think of any job where success is measured every few weeks with a test of memory. Success in our jobs depends on what we accomplished. And it’s is measured by all the little things we do, day in and day out.
Unit testing certainly serves a purpose, but that purpose is exaggerated and distorted by our current approach. And with distance learning, we can’t even say that unit tests are the most accurate or reliable form of assessment.
Instead, grade students on their productivity. If you are using a personalized platform, grade them for time spent. Eventually, you can factor in their progress.
For inquiry-based tasks, look at artifacts. These give us a more authentic measure of their productivity. It’s also easier to tell when a student has done their own work, especially when they present their work to the class.
Taking the First Step
There are countless ways to make our grading systems more effective and efficient. But trying to do them all will just leave you overwhelmed.
As you adjust to grading online learning, make changes in small steps. Even small changes may feel sudden and dramatic. So go easy on yourself. Expect to make mistakes, and try to learn from them.
If you’ve already been using personalized or inquiry-based learning, the shift will be a bit easier. Our group work rubric can help with grading inquiry-based tasks. And our personalized learning plan will help your students set their goals, and help you track their progress.
For a complete menu of our services and downloadable resources for online learning, visit roomtodiscover.com/online. There you can reserve your seat in an upcoming online workshop or schedule a custom online workshop for your school. You can also connect with an instructional coach who will help you work through your biggest challenges with content, pedagogy, or technology.
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About the Author
Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff